Friday, February 29, 2008

the crucial point of impatience

I’ve been reading Another World: a second anthology of work from the St Mark’s poetry project, edited by Anne Waldman. The book was published in 1971, thiry-seven years ago. What appears in it first appeared in print, of course, in the years preceding that. Many of the names are familiar to me: Tom Clark, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Koch, Peter Schjeldahl, John Ashbery, Diane Di Prima.

I don’t recall having read Lorenzo Thomas before. There’s a page of info about him at the Electronic Poetry Center. The play below, I’d probably not attend. But it’s a good script for the page.

A One-Act Play by Lorenzo Thomas:


The audience, once seated in the theatre, will become impatient. They will “want something to happen.” When the director is of the opinion that the audience is at the crucial point of impatience, that point where the decision is made either to leave or remain, he will begin the play. An actor enters and announces that the performance will be delayed for a specific period of time. His lines are improvised, but the delay he announces must not be either too great or too minor: in the first case, audience anticipation would be destroyed; in the latter, unease and dissatisfaction would find an outlet. The actor exits and five minutes later, regardless of the delay he has announced, one thousand men enter and physically assault the audience.


The play has a sequel of sorts, called FRENCH REVOLUTION. It is much the same except for costuming.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

language change – paper v. mouth

Another excerpt from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: a natural history of language:

“The prestige of writing as the vehicle of education and its physical constancy in contrast with the ephermality of, as the late Anthony Burgess put it, a mouthful of air mean that we tend to conceive of written language as the prototype of ‘language’ itself, as how language ‘should’ be. … The existence of a language in writing tends to lead its speakers, if most of them are literate, to reconceive spoken language as a kind of pale, sloppy reflection of the ‘real’ language on the page. Changes in the spoken language are regarded as a kind of shaggy entropy, a defacement of something considered set, eternal, the alteration of which constitutes destruction. This is our tacit sense of what ‘English’ is, for example. [Speakers of languages that haven’t been regularized on the page] neither mentally ‘see’ their languages … nor process what comes out of their mouths as a ‘version’ of something ‘best’ expressed by scratches on paper.”

There is a “seductive power [to] having been there first,” McWhorter says. Although we learn language first in the homey environs of the family, the written exerts an authority by seeming to have a greater age, by seeming to predate the language learned from Mom and from Billy and LaVonda on play dates. And what is written is older in this sense: it retains features speakers are beginning to (or have already) discarded. The language as spoke is always morphing, is always becoming new. The language as writ, much less so.

“The dialect and time slice of a language chosen to write in feels … anointed [because] it just happened to be the one to get immortalized on the page.” It’s pure happenstance what moment in time a language learned to lie down on a sheet of paper. The language that lies there represents the vital immediate language of its first paper training but time goes by, the spoken language renews itself, and the written language clings to its old self. Yes, gradually the written word changes to catch up with the language living in people’s mouths and hearts. After all, older versions of written English look strange to us. Presumably Shakespeare was writing the way people spoke at the time (or, at least, more like). Eventually older written Englishes will be as incomprehensible as books written in Old English or Latin. In purely oral languages the change happens much quicker.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 4

Another World: a second anthology of work from the St Mark’s poetry project, edited by Anne Waldman includes a week’s worth of Joe Brainard diary. For “Wednesday” he writes out late night thoughts:

“Here I am again. Not so drunk tonight. But feeling just as lonely and dramatic. … I don’t really know ‘how’ to pick somebody up. And I’m afraid of being rejected. And it’s five minutes after twelve and I’m going to get sleepy very soon. I hope. I wish I was in the middle of a good book. But I finished [the last one I was reading] and I’m not up to getting into a new one right now. I want to live a very wild and exciting life. Why don’t I? I guess I must be chicken. I can’t think of any other reason for not living the way I want to. Unless, perhaps, to protect myself. I wish that nothing mattered to me except having fun. I wish that I wasn’t afraid of being a fool. I wish that I was a stud. I wish that days wouldn’t just evaporate. I hope that I don’t grow old before I realize how terrific I am. I hope that tomorrow won’t make this sound too corny. Tho I know that it will. That it is. And that, actually, I don’t care. That’s what this special diary is all about.”

Yes, I edited out what I couldn’t own myself. That the diary is being written in Greenwich Village, that the book just read was by Genet, and that, “One good thing about me is that I never feel sorry for myself.” Never? Can’t say that!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

3 years of DIR

Dare I Read had its third birthday yesterday.

Three years of working my way through my reading life.

I’ll get back to mining the diary. I’m one post away from finishing with the 1988 diary in London, the summing up post. As has happened before, I just got tired of going over it. The old stuff.

I’ve lately been responding to whatever strikes me in current reading. When I have something to say about it. Sometimes when I just want to pull something out and point at it.

The “notes toward an autobiography by others” is growing faster than I’d expected. I could imagine it turning into a separate thing, a book maybe. (One can imagine all sorts of things.)

How long have you been reading Dare I Read? Any favorite moments?

Monday, February 25, 2008

more notes toward an autobiography by others

Joe Brainard wrote a long piece called “I Remember”. Every paragraph (sometimes no more than a sentence) starts “I remember …” as in “I remember that little jerk you give just before you fall asleep. Like falling.”

I remember being scared the first time that “little jerk” happened. It’s only happened to me a few times but it sure gives meaning to the “falling” part of falling asleep. It really feels like falling and your legs jerk out to catch you and the jerking of the legs wakes you.

A section from “I Remember” appears in Another World: a second anthology of work from the St Mark’s poetry project, edited by Anne Waldman, the latest anthology to rise to the top of the pile.

Since I’m excerpting Brainard memories that could be mine there’s also this:

“I remember having a paper route.”

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Abyss by Abyss

On the whole I can’t say’s I’m a fan. Of Emily Dickinson. Yes, there is the occasional poem that really hits me. But mostly, I’d have to say, I don’t get her.

I’ve blogged before about working my way through The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (edited by Thomas H. Johnson!) … “I think I'm past halfway. Through Emily Dickinson's Complete Poems.” That’s from the January 2004 LuvSet post where I also said, “There are Dickinson poems I really like. But mostly she's not a poet that makes poetry for me.” It doesn’t look like four years and hundreds more Dickinson poems have altered my opinions.

Recently I came across one that’s a variation on a Dickinson poem I copied out some time ago. First, the poem (340, Johnson’s numbering), that I copied out May 2002:

Is Bliss then, such Abyss,
I must not put my foot amiss
For fear I spoil my shoe?

I’d rather suit my foot
Than save my Boot –
For yet to buy another Pair
Is possible
At any store –

But Bliss, is sold just once.
The Patent lost
None buy it any more –
Say, Foot, decide the point –
The Lady cross, or not?
Verdict for Boot!


Nearly a thousand poems later (editor Johnson gives it the number 1322), we have Dickinson saying this:

Floss won’t save you from an Abyss
But a Rope will –
Notwithstanding a Rope for a Souvenir
Is not beautiful –

But I tell you every step is a Trough –
And every stop a Well –
Now will you have the Rope or the Floss?
Prices reasonable –


Two Abysses! Are they the same? One is Bliss. The other? But what’s with Bliss spoiling a shoe? My reading of the first poem is unstable. She has decided against stepping forth into Bliss but why? She says she can always buy another shoe and opportunities for Bliss may not come again. Yet she seems to decide against the step. I can’t help thinking about Patent Leather from which shoes are made, when Dickinson says, “The Patent lost / None buy it any more.” Which is for sale? Boot or Bliss? Both?

The second poem I tend to think the Abyss a more conventional Black Mood, a Depression. But reviewing the earlier Abyss and that poem’s items for sale (Boot & Bliss versus Rope & Floss) … pairing them like that I see they off-rhyme poem to poem, a typically Dickinsonian kind of off-rhyme … what is the merchant’s recommendation? Skip the Abyss!

I’m not going to add #1322 to my personal anthology of favorites, not because I don’t like it, but because I don’t think it’s as funny. I’m tickled every time I see the girl hovering over the muddy puddle of Bliss-Abyss, holding back in order to save her shoe, which, anyway, she could buy another of, but Bliss, what could suit a foot so well!

That practical rope, on the other hand, is not only “not beautiful” it’s rather dull. She’s turned in her fashionable boot for sensible shoes! “Prices reasonable”?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

no significance

In a recounting of her experience at the viewing of a total eclipse of the sun that’s included in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard gives this definition of what’s significant, what matters:

“If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once that what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance.”

Really? Frankly, I have a hard time drawing a line here. If it only matters because people matter, then whatever happens (whatever ever happened) when people go unaffected, by definition, does not matter. Well, then, how much affected do “people” have to be before something matters? If one person is stung by a beetle indigenous to one swamp, and the person slogging alone through the turgid water into which, starving and lost, she eventually sinks, drowns, decays, and is never again encountered by any human sense (the beetle sting had nothing to do with killing the woman, it was just one of many discomforts, one of the most minor) – does the beetle matter? If a virus wiped out twelve villages eight thousand years ago then mutated into harmlessness forever would that virus matter? It hardly matters what rain falls on Titan, that smoggy moon circling Saturn; there’s nobody there to need an umbrella or galoshes. Huh, you say, looking out the window at what Dillard assumes is doomsday. I needn’t bother turning my head to tell the hubby. He’ll be dead in two minutes. Why make those two minutes more uncomfortable with the knowledge? Besides, being as humanity is about to wiped from existence, well, pff. So what!

I don’t know. Considering how fascinated Annie Dillard is by the detail, even the non-human detail (her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a lot of nature-watching), I wonder what she’s talking about here. Perhaps she was so freaked out by the indifference of the sun and moon to her emotional needs when they went about throwing and obstructing light that she couldn’t help herself – she had to claim that only what happened to her mattered, dammit, then subconsciously masked that egotism with “people”, which rung a reassuringly humane tone. People matter!

“Truth is, I THOUGHT it mattered. I thought that MUSIC mattered. But does it? Bollocks! Not compared to how people matter.” – a line from the movie Brassed Off, as sampled for the Chumbawamba song “Tubthumping”.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Happy Birthday, Ishmael Reed!

When I came across Ishmael Reed’s “The Author Reflects on His 35th Birthday” in his New and Collected Poems (1988), I saw that Reed’s second 35 were almost up. As of today Mr Reed gets to start on his third batch.

The Author Reflects on His 35th Birthday

35? I have been looking forward
To you for many years now
So much so that
I feel you and I are old
Friends and so on this day, 35
I propose a toast to
Me and You
35? From this day on
I swear before the bountiful
Osiris that
If I ever
Try to bring out the
Best in folks again I
Want somebody to take me
Outside and kick me up and
Down the sidewalk or
Sit me in a corner with a
Funnel on my head

Make me as hard as a rock
35, like the fellow in
The story about the
Big one that got away
Let me laugh my head off
With Moby Dick as we reminisce
About them suckers who went
Down with the Pequod
35? I ain’t been mean enough
Make me real real mean
Mean as old Marie rolling her eyes
Mean as the town Bessie sings about
“Where all the birds sing bass”

35? Make me Tennessee mean
Cobra mean
Cuckoo mean
Injun mean
Dracula mean
Beethovenian-brows mean
Miles Davis mean
Pawnbroker mean
Pharaoh mean
That’s it, 35
Make me Pharoah mean
Mean as can be
Mean as the dickens
Meaner than mean

When I walk down the street
I want them to whisper
There goes Mr. Mean
“He’s double mean
He even turned the skeletons
In his closet out into
The cold”

And 35?
Don’t let me trust anybody
Over Reed but
Just in case
Put a tail on that
Negro too

February 22, 1973


Here’s to 35 times two!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

more notes toward an autobiography by others

The New Yorker, Dec 25, 2006 issue, includes Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s “Nobel Lecture” from that year. Toward the end of the piece Pamuk says, “The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write?”

Pamuk’s answer is a series of statements, some of which could easily be my answer, some of which could be anyone’s answer for doing whatever, washing the dishes maybe. One motivation stood out for me because it’s not one that comes up in every author’s story: anger.

Anger has pushed a lot of my own writing. Sometimes it’s anger at the very piece I’m working on – why won’t it work, goddammit. I’ll show you, you dumb poem, you’ll work if I have to blow you apart with a wild grenade and sew your nasty pieces back together, elbow to nose, tongue to asshole.

Pamuk: “I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone.”

And: “I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

a language is just its words

I’ve long been unimpressed by anxiety people feel about the degradation of English. John McWhorter in his The Power of Babel: a natural history of language doesn’t seem worried either. In this paragraph he dresses down the language purity police:

“The Association for the Preservation of the German Language and similar organizations, such as the Academie Francaise’s famous vigil against English words ‘taking over’ in French, are laboring under a misconception that, for all intents and purposes, a language is just its words. This is a natural feeling, because words are what we are conscious of – we don’t think about … the grammatical rules when we talk. There is a folk conception that learning a language means picking up the word for hat, the word for sleep, etc. – but we all know that, in actuality, you could memorize thousands of a language’s words and still have less ability to communicate than a three-year-old, because how the words are put together is equally central to what ‘a language’ is. English … lost most of its original words. However, because we still use a sound system similar in broad outline to that of our Germanic relatives (it’s not hard for us to get a good German accent, and vice versa), as well as a broadly similar grammar (for example, adjectives before the nouns), and retain original English words as our bracing beams and girders (the grammatical words like will and the, basic words like boy and like), the language remains fundamentally Germanic – that is, English. It could be nothing else.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

in the business of talking

Tony Snow, spokesmodel for the White House, quoted in The New Yorker, Dec 25, 2006 issue, “The most important thing is that the President continues to be engaged in the business of talking about the way forward.”

Does it matter what particular stimulus caused Tony Snow to produce words that could be transcribed to provide a look familiar to us, such that he seems to be speaking English and saying something one could understand?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Charlotte’s Web

In the Introduction to the Penguin English Library edition of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights editor David Daiches quotes Charlotte Bronte (author of Jane Eyre) saying of herself & her siblings, “We wove a web in childhood.”

I suppose someone knows whether this is the source of E.B. White’s title Charlotte’s Web? That book, of course, has nothing to do with the Brontes. Charlotte is a spider who adds words to her morning web in order to dissuade a farmer from killing a pig.

E.B. White was quite the erudite writer; coming across the Charlotte Bronte quote might’ve sparked an idea that grew into a story. Where do you get your ideas?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

notes toward an autobiography by others

Once in awhile in my reading I come across a passage that I might have written. This is what I think! That happened to me! It leads me to suppose one could write an autobiography via collage, the source texts all written by someone else but arranged so they tell one’s own story.

The following short piece from Barbara Tomash’s Flying in Water sounds much like my own experience with warm surf:

She had learned how to meet the waves. How to wait for them to grow large, to leap into the swell at the deepest point when it is massive yet gentle, like a giantess mother who takes you in her arms and swings you over the kitchen chair. Sometimes her timing was off – the wave crashed on top of her head, spun her around in the storm of salt and sand. The directionless confusion, the disintegration even of gravity, she liked these, almost as much as being held and rocked. The terrific impact of the water rendered her weightless and limp. When she could see sunlight through the murky swirl, or when her knees crashed into the sandy floor, and it was evident where top was and where was bottom, she propelled herself upwards kicking.

The ocean I grew up with was cold, nothing one would swim in, closest I’d gotten was wading barefoot, and then only till my feet got numb. I would retreat to dry sand warmed by the sun until my toes shook off the chill. When I was about 12 my brother and I joined my dad’s family for a vacation in Hawaii. On that trip I learned the delights of walking out beyond the breakers and bobbing, the rollers lifting me from the sandy bottom, and gently dropping me back.

I would also lie down where the surf foamed up onto the beach. Waves would pull my body out, then push it back in. When the water abandoned me, I was surprised at first, then scared to see it had rushed away only to regroup in a big wave that would smash down on me and carry me, tumbling, out of control, much as Tomash describes it. After the scare faded I decided I liked it. I spent a whole day doing that. (So it seems in my memory.)

In this next excerpt from Flying in Water the woman is older, with children of her own, and she needs to feel in control:

Now she would hate the sensation of tumbling, of being flung and pushed out of control. She feels, looking out at the ocean, how much of her girlhood she has lost. In Mexico she swam again in the Pacific. The waves were warm and calm. She swam parallel to the beach so she could judge the distance between herself and her son and husband on dry land. As lovely as the water felt, she couldn’t rest in it. The edgelessness bothered her. She has grown used to swimming pools. Most of the earth is covered by oceans, she thinks – like it or not, we are always at sea.

This one wouldn’t fit in my autobiography, not having kids, but I understand unease at the sea’s great expanse, one little body lost in it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

ant head sutures

Saw Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto recently. When one of the forest Indians uses ants to suture closed a wound it looked like an illustration of something I’d read recently. Robert M. Sapolsky in his A Primate’s Memoir writes about his time in Africa studying baboons. His nearest human neighbors were Masai.

In a passage about army ants Sapolsky says, “Once they dig in your skin with their pincers, they hold on so tightly that when you pull at them to get them off, the head detaches from the body, leaving the pincers still in you. The Masai use them to suture people – bad cut, and someone grabs an army ant, holds the two sides of the cut together, lets the pissed-off ant sink its pincers in, and, quickly, twists off the body, leaving rows of ant head sutures in place.”

I don’t remember having heard about the same practice in MesoAmerica (where Apocalypto takes place), yet a quick web search brought me this reference concerning the Leaf Cutter Ant at, “Indians used the jaws of the soldier ant as sutures to hold together the edges of wounds.” So there you go.

Friday, February 15, 2008

clumping into complexes

Switching his vantage from earth to the clouds themselves John H. McWhorter tries to assess the boundaries (from The Power of Babel: a natural history of language):

“Typically, what looks from the air like ‘a language’ is actually a much hazier business on the ground. Korean is relatively uniform, but Japanese speakers in Tokyo can barely follow speakers from the Ryukyu Islands … Hebrew is pretty tidy, but its neighbor and relative Arabic differs so much from country to country that the various ‘dialects’ differ about as much as Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese do from one another. …

“The best we can say is that there are innumerable dialects in the world, related to each other to various degrees, sometimes clumping into complexes particularly close to one another, but generally not so close that all are mutually intelligible, with distances often so great between some of them that their speakers do not consider themselves to be speaking ‘the same thing’ in any sense.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Remingtons from Rimbaud

I’ve read some translations of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of French letters, and, so far, I haven’t caught the magic. But when Paul Theroux in Dark Star Safari, his book on his travel through Africa, makes a special trip to a city in Ethiopia to check out the country where Rimbaud landed after flying from France and literature, I was surprised to discover the fruits of Rimbaud’s new vocation (puts one in mind of the other “Rambo”):

“Harar [a city in Ethiopia] was a place I had always wanted to see for its associations with … the boy genius [the French poet] Arthur Rimbaud: after he forsook poetry and civilization Rimbaud had been a trader there off and on for ten years. In spite of his whining in letters home, he had liked Harar’s remoteness and wildness.

“…It was normally quiet in Dire Dawa [the train stop nearest Harar], but even quieter the day I arrived because of … the 105th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa … The Adwa victory, a sweet one for Ethiopians, an early anticolonial one, was accomplished in 1896, when twenty thousand Italian soldiers, hurrying into northern Ethiopia from Eritrea, met ninety thousand ‘perfervid, battle-hungry Ethiopians,’ commanded by King Menelik II … Trying to group for an attack in the rocky landscape near Adwa, the Italians became lost and disoriented. The Ethiopians, outnumbering them by more than four to one, surrounded them, harried them with spears and arrows, killed more than fifteen thousand, and wounded or captured the rest. They also had rifles – two thousand of them were Remingtons that Rimbaud had sold to Menelik in Entotto in 1887.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

her fifteen foot barnacle-scarred head

David Matlin describes a visit to the gray whales of Baja in “It Might Do Well With Strawberries” (which is a reference to what Herman Melville suggests would go with a serving of whale milk). As we are going to be visiting the whales this spring I was surprised to stumble upon Matlin’s account in Golden Handcuffs Review, v.1 no. 8, the latest literary magazine to drift into my active reading pile. I’m trying not to build my hopes too high concerning whale communing possibilities. After the sleepy manatee experience I remind myself not to be expect a performance. Still, Matlin makes his whale visit sound sweet:

The Lagoon this morning was unusually calm. … The guide began to slow [the boat] and in this silence the backs and sides of grey whales surfaced all around us, cows and calves arching up, exposing their spines and flukes; glittering, and slithering into the depths, great mammalian dragons, their spouts creating instant flower-like rainbows over the nearly glass-like water nursery. We could hear the huge animal breathings, the wind carrying their breath-spray and ourselves immersed in the raptures of these life sounds for maybe an hour … drifted, and listened.

A single cow suddenly rose up from the whale generated sea-whip. At first she appeared and then subsided; ascended again and then let us touch her. She was 45 feet long and had extraordinary control of her tremendous body. She could float on her back under our small boat not moving even an inch for minutes as she watched us with her great eye or turned and floated up to the side of the dory, her fifteen foot barnacle-scarred head fully exposed, her blow hole expanding in spray with the force of a geyser … We could see her flukes, her huge fins, her multicolored body as she floated around us in circles, gentle, curious, elegant, distinct and I don’t know quite how to reach for any of the words that might help me to say how suddenly relieved we were of cynicism and malice …

David Matlin visited the whales at Scammon’s Lagoon, also called Ojo de Liebre, which is near the village of Guerrero Negro and a huge salt works. We won’t be going there. We will spend our time in a tent at the more remote San Ignacio Lagoon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

They asked for you

Douglas Messerli founded Sun & Moon Press and its successor, Green Integer. An excerpt from his manuscript “Nine Nights in New York” appears in Golden Handcuffs Review, v.1 no. 8. There are no dates in the piece, though internal clues suggest the mid-70s.

Among the stories Messerli recounts about his first months in New York is one amazing coincidence:

“Upon completing my junior year of college at the University of Wisconsin, I was nearly desperate to get to New York City.” He snagged a ride with “ a co-worker … and her husband. [After a meandering trip] we … stay[ed] with her husband’s brother and wife in a small apartment on 72nd Street.”

Though Messerli had no idea how he was going to live in New York – he hadn’t even told his parents he was going there! – he managed to find work and places to stay, including apartment-sitting for a puppeteer on tour, and the YMCA.

“I had still failed to inform my poor parents that I was in New York! Today, it seems unbelievably cruel of me … my parents would be terrified by my unexplained absence … My only excuse now is that I was young … Life was exciting.

“One evening during my tour of the various bars, I met a young man who, following the usual pattern after hearing of the far-away location of my habitation, suggested we go up to his place. … ‘I know this street,’ I blurted … I was more than a bit startled when he entered the same apartment building in which lived the relatives of my Wisconsin friends. I was even more overwhelmed … when he … opened the door to the very apartment where they had lived. ‘I just moved here a few months ago,’ he mysteriously reported …

“We had sex, and I was preparing to leave – or perhaps to stay for the night. I can’t remember my intentions. For before I could take any actions, the telephone rang. It was for me, reported my new friend. … ‘They asked for you.’

“’But no one knows I’m here.’ … It was my mother! Where was I? Where had I been? She’d had to call the University to find out that I’d gone away to New York with some friends, and they had told her that I’d stayed the first night with their relatives. My mother had called here now to find out if they knew where I might have gone. Why hadn’t I told them? Was I coming home? … She was in tears.”

Monday, February 11, 2008

clouds clouds clouds

Linguist John McWhorter in his The Power of Babel: a natural history of language likens languages to clouds:

We look at a cloud formation with full awareness of its inherently transitory nature: we know that if we look up again in an hour, the formation will almost certainly be different and that if it isn’t, then this is due to an unusually windless interval that will surely not last long. Language does not change that fast, of course, but it changes just as inevitably and completely over time. Language is an inherently dynamic, rather than static, living entity.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ted & Syl’s Day at the Beach

It seems Sylvia was pining for her beaches back in Massachusetts. England is so dirty and gray and drab and ugly. A nice cleansing day at the beach. That would be the thing! And Ted knew just the beach:

… It was dusk when we got there
After a steamed-up hour of November downpour
And black cars sploshing through pot-hole puddles.
The rain had stopped. Three or four other cars
Waited for walkers – distant and wrapped in their dowds.
A car-park streetlamp made the whole scene hopeless.
The sea moved near, stunned after the rain,
Unperforming. Above it
The blue-black heap of the West collapsed slowly,
Comfortless as a cold iron stove
Standing among dead cinders
In some roofless ruin. You refused to get out.
You sat behind your mask, inaccessible –
Staring towards the ocean that had failed you.
I walked to the water’s edge. A dull wave
Managed to lift and flop. Then a weak hiss
Rolled black oil-balls and pushed at obscure spewage.

I first read “spewage” as “sewage”, an available confusion Ted probably chose for. Ah, the ocean had failed the missy! And the husband?

That stove – that stove! Comfortless, the thing that is, on nasty days, the very source in a house of warmth and glow. It is cold, it is iron (so black?), it is standing (confrontationally?), it is surrounded by the dead, and it is exposed to the elements; if it is not a ruin itself, it is ruin’s peer. And it is not even there!

Pathetic wave, so beaten down it’s got hardly the strength to raise itself, and fall, without grace, on a fouled shore. Perform! Damn you!

I bet Ted felt like somebody who snagged one of the hottest tickets in town, only to – get to the theater late, find out there’s a support beam blocking the view of the stage, learn the ingenue has been replaced by an understudy, your sweetheart’s chair has a broken spring … in other words, responsible for the disaster.

source: Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Table for Sylvia

Sylvia Plath wrote a lot of angry, mythic poems about her father. In his Birthday Letters Ted Hughes can’t let that go. Some lines from Hughes’ “The Table”:

I wanted to make you a solid writing table
That would last a lifetime.
I bought a broad elm plank two inches thick,
The wild bark surfing along one edge of it,
Rough-cut for coffin timber. Coffin elm
Finds a new life, with its corpse,
Drowned in the waters of the earth. It gives the dead
Protection for a slightly longer voyage
Than beech or ash or pine might. With a plane
I revealed a perfect landing pad
For your inspiration. I did not
Know I had made and fitted a door
Opening downwards into your Daddy’s grave.

I like that Ted can’t resist a pun. He uses a plane to smooth the rough cut surface of the board, the board becoming a landing pad for the plane carrying Sylvia’s inspiration. Landing pad / writing pad.

And coming into that plane we go from the earth’s covering soil / metaphoric waters drowning a coffin to a coffin as bark for voyages, thus from boat to plane. Isn’t that little consumer advisory the best? Elm “gives … protection for … slightly longer … than beech or ash or pine.”

Ted made a nice table – but it was really a coffin, no, a boat, no, a plane, no, a landing pad, no, a door – a door to the grave!

Friday, February 08, 2008


In my post about Jonathan London I said I’ve remembered two things for twenty years about Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980, that it had an Oz-themed poem and that it contained a poem by Jonathan London. After writing that, I remembered a third thing – there was a poem in it by Ronald Reagan.

So I read the last poem in Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980. It’s not Oz-themed. Nor were any of the others. No poems by Ronald Reagan. I read more than one of these anthologies?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Alvin Toffler, poet

I didn’t know Alvin Toffler wrote poems! The one that appears in Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980 was first published in Antioch Review, which ought to mean something. (Does it?)

Alvin Toffler is famous as a futurist – you’ve read Futureshock, haven’t you? I read some other book, too. Megatrends? I remember finding his thinking worth the engagement, though I’ve long since forgotten specifics.

In “The League of Selves” he seems to be arguing for the interchangeability of individuals. If Oswald hadn’t shot Kennedy, it would’ve been someone else. History made him do it?

Sighting down the silver barrel,
crosshairs on his temple
I could Kennedy his cranium …

“Kennedy his cranium”! Kennedy having become a verb meaning to shoot a bullet into.

I could Kennedy his cranium
or Luther King his eyeballs.
I could RFK his chest
or Lincoln his lung.

Lincolned lung!

RFK would be the opposite of CPR?

The poem ranges through history with “the League of Selves” (they all seem to be assassins), killing the Archduke of Sarajevo, splattering the gore in the room Hitler just stepped from (oops!).

”If history books had holes …
where names like Ray or Booth appear,
I’d find a different way
to manifest my destiny.”

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

paper, piper, pit

Is this a found poem? It looks like Warren Slesinger grabbed three definitions from a dictionary. He liked the way they fit together? If these were lifted directly from a dictionary it’s not one currently online.

Sandpaper, Sandpiper, Sandpit

sandpaper (sand pa.per) n. –sPaper that
is covered with sand or some other rough,
abrasive substance used for smoothing or
polishing a surface. -v.sandpapered,
sandpapering, sandpapers. To work with it
or as if with it: My mother sandpapered
the edges of my father’s moods until she
made their marriage smooth.
See true grit.

sandpiper (sand pi.per) n. -s 1. An Eastern
shorebird that walks at the water’s edge
quite rapidly; it frequents the flats of
the tidal estuaries whenever the beaches
of the region are enveloped in a chilly
fog; it is streaked with a brownish gray
or a buff, but it is completely white at
the breast. 2. A woman with the impulsive
movements of a sandpiper: She hurried on
ahead of me just like a little
peeping with pride.

sandpit (sand pit) n. -s 1. A deep hole
in the sand. 2. A point of depression.
3. A hollow of loneliness that is left,
if a loved one is lost. See true grief.


If the definitions are invented they are convincing pastiche of dictionary speak.

I’ve worked with the dictionary in poem-making. Words in random (& arbitrary) orders create new meanings. The reader seeks patterns, sees connections that become stories. I’m not completely taken with Slesinger’s poem but I like the method. There is something these words are saying to each other, he asserts. Even if I don’t see it I still like the words and the definitions, those bits of figurative language that illustrate a context for the words. I keep expecting a whole to coalesce from the parts. That one doesn’t would be the reason I leave the poem behind, a backward glance or two, an appreciative shrug, and I’m off.

source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Poetry & Pizza goodies

Last Friday was the monthly Poetry & Pizza reading. We had Bruce Isaacson, MK Chavez, and John Attardi.

I didn’t bring home any of their books. However, I did bring home the Zeitgeist literary zine, a photocopy staple in the upper left business. You can download your own here (pdf): Neon Geyser, Porcelain Sky. Contains poems by Chavez and Isaacson, as well as Joie Cook, Q.R. Hand, Brian Morrisey, and Katharine Harer, et al. Katharine is one of the P&P coordinators.

I bought Clive Matson’s latest chapbook, Chalcedony’s First Ten Songs. Clive is the other P&P coordinator (besides me). I see Clive has his own page at the new lit site Red Room. I’ve been meaning to put up a post about Red Room. Most of the writers so far seem to be SF Bay Area, but the site builders aren’t locally focused so much as starting with who they know.

Mel C. Thompson, who I haven’t seen in years, showed up to support his old buddy Bruce. I’d love to have Mel read for P&P. He handed me his latest self-published chapbook: A Poetry House Built With Four-by-Fours: an ongoing collection of pseudo-immortal poems: Chapter One: shortsighted works written for transient profit. Make sure you stop by the Mel C. Thompson website.

Katharine also put out a stack of brochures for the annual WOW: Women on Writing conference that takes place at the school where she teaches, Skyline College. It takes place Saturday, March 1st. Looks like there are workshops on travel writing and “sense of place” and “your life as story” by such as Carol Lem, Nancy Shelby, Harer herself, Adair Lara, etc. No one turned away for being an XY. I’m not planning to go. Frankly, another workshop on how to write or where to send it sounds depressing. But if anybody wants to buddy up maybe two would be fun. Looks like it runs about $85 or $100.

I’m still working on the readers for Poetry & Pizza March. Should be able to make an announcement shortly.

Monday, February 04, 2008

poem as metaphor, another

As I said in an earlier post on the poem poem it usually occurs inside a longer poem. In Ishmael Reed’s “Beware: Do Not Read This Poem” the section that seems most poem-as-metaphor would be this one:

do not resist this poem
this poem has yr eyes
this poem has his head
this poem has his arms
this poem has his fingers
this poem has his fingertips

this poem is the reader & the
reader this poem

In an earlier section the poem was eating the reader piece by piece (“it has drawn in yr feet … it has drawn in yr legs”), so I’m puzzled by the switch from “yr” to “his” – as you the reader are incorporated into this poem do you become someone else, a third person? Are you now only the eyes in “his” body? Who is this? The poem? The poet?

source: New and Collected Poems, 1988

Sunday, February 03, 2008

some ancient pain

In Bettie M. Sellers’ “The Morning of the Red-Tailed Hawk” the speaker seems to liken herself to the hawk, seeing herself as a predator, a source of pain, her religion the religion of the hawk rather than the dove.

The Morning of the Red-Tailed Hawk

In holy books, in church, I hear curses,
see stones hurled at bodies caught in acts
that spurn the law of Moses and of God. I,

like Saul, have judged, held coats in hands
washed clean in the blood of a Bible-belt Lamb.

But, from my window now, I follow the red-tailed
hawk, gliding, imperceptibly adjusting
to turbulence, scanning his territory
for unwary rodents in the tall marsh grass.

I too cruise, needing emotion, words to write.
Today, I intercepted a man’s glance, saw his eyes
smoothing the light hairs on another man’s arm
as they walked the beach.

These two are lovers in some sheltered cove,
where my claws could intrude, sharp
as the red-tailed hawk, his talons sunk in flesh.

I will not write their names. Deeper than books,
than church, I have caught some ancient pain,
accepting it to cup, as in a chalice,
between my trembling hands.


It’s an intriguing poem on homophobia, the speaker obviously conflicted, having been steeped in the ideology of hatred, but able to put herself in the place of the victim of “stones” and judgment. She seems to know the men (“I will not write their names”) so could expose them to danger, be a danger to them herself.

I’m having trouble getting a read on the last sentence. To what pain is she referring? The pain of social rejection & judgment? That’s certainly older than and “deeper than books, / than church …” Is it empathy that fills the chalice; she’s feeling the pain she’s served others – in philosophy & imagination (“I hear curses … have judged … my claws … sunk in flesh”)?

Odd use of the one word: cruise. It’s gay slang for seeking sex. “I too cruise, needing emotion …” And eye contact is a significant part of cruising, “… intercepted a man’s glance.” Is jealousy one of the emotions behind the poem? He’s already taken? The poet has a female name so I’m reading the speaker as female, but a poet can speak from a persona not herself; does the poem change if the speaker is male?

source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Saturday, February 02, 2008


A grisly sonnet! Who knew there were such a thing. Skip this poem by Liston Pope if you are not ready for gore:

Sea Turtle

Long after his great carapace was wrenched
And torn with grapnels, slung on hooks and hung
Endwise above the pier; and sailors drenched
In slime and blood had carved and hacked among
His giant parts, had ripped his sea-green limbs
And cut his ancient head away; when all
His form was bleeding film, a crimson lens
Of gelatin upon the dock: withal
The great sea turtle’s massive heart beat full
Against the plastron, throbbing audibly
Its plea: this was no easy thing, to still
A century of roaming through the sea;
And beat long after sunset had dispersed
The blood wrung from the cursing sailors’ shirts.


A single sentence, too.

Is it true a sea turtle’s heart will beat on after the poor turtle’s head (&, it sounds like, virtually everything else) has been hacked away?

(My internet research neither conclusively confirms nor debunks the notion. The only explicit reference I can find is a quote from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, not exactly firsthand testimony.)

source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Friday, February 01, 2008

Ted & Syl’s roadtrip

Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath took a road trip across America. I was delighted by the sensuous horror show in Ted’s vision of the Badlands of North Dakota:

“… A landscape
Staked out in the sun and left to die.
The Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Long ago dead of the sun. Loose teeth, bone
Coming through crust, bristles.
Or a smashed industrial complex
For production
Of perpetual sacrifice, of canyons
Long ago disembowelled.
When Aztec and Inca went on South
They left the sun waiting,
Starved for worship, raging for attention,
Now gone sullenly mad.
As it sank it stared at our car.”

source: Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes